Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby have formed a football partnership like no other.
Both players have overcome the individual lows of last season to reach new heights. Kerr has left her first disappointing WSL season in the past, claiming the Golden Boot with 21 goals. Meanwhile, Kirby is being touted as the favourite to pick up this year’s PFA Player of the Year award, with a substantial 16 goals and 11 assists to her name.
After Chelsea picked up the WSL title on Sunday and we look ahead to the Champions League this weekend, GiveMeSport Women looks at each of the dynamic duo’s comebacks, how they have proved the doubters wrong, and what has made them interlink so well this season.
Sam Kerr arrived in the WSL as one of the league’s biggest-ever signings. This accolade has since been taken by her Chelsea teammate Pernille Harder, who moved to the London-based club for a world-record transfer fee.
Kerr’s move to the English league was a massive one and it seems to have paved the way for big-name players crossing the waters, particularly from the United States’ National Women’s Soccer League.
This season we have seen the likes of Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis and Alex Morgan all make the headlines over their transfers to English clubs, albeit Morgan’s stay at Tottenham was relatively short-lived.
Kerr arrived with high expectations from fans of the WSL and rightly so.
Playing for Western New York Flash, Sky Blue FC and Chicago Red Stars, the Australian racked up 77 goals in just 119 appearances in the NWSL, making her the league’s all-time leading goalscorer.
It was a record she also held in the Australian W-League up until recently – Michelle Heyman has since exceeded the 70-goal mark set by Kerr playing for Western Knights and Perth Glory.
When Sam Kerr’s transfer to Chelsea was announced in November 2019, fans of women’s football in England were excited at the addition of another prolific goal-scorer who could challenge Arsenal’s Vivienne Miedema and Manchester City’s Ellen White in the race for the Golden Boot.
But fans were made to wait by Kerr. A leg injury hindered her from making her Chelsea debut, which eventually came three months after the initial signing was revealed against Reading in January 2020. Her first goal came two weeks after that, in a season-defining 4-1 win over Arsenal.
And that was about it from the Australian striker. Her goal against Arsenal was to be her only WSL goal of the 2019/2020 season. Her injury, and of course the suspension of the season due to a global pandemic, didn't help.
But spectators’ could help but feel that Kerr, known to be one of the world’s best strikers, hadn’t found her feet in the WSL.
One goal in seven appearances was, at least by Kerr’s standards, a poor run of form. “Overrated” was a word that came to mind for many when they watched the Matildas’ captain’s performances.
As Kerr struggled to settle in a new country and a new club, Fran Kirby’s impact on the pitch was also absent, although for a different reason entirely.
Kirby was battling with pericarditis, a disease that causes inflammation to the sac surrounding the heart. Instead of training and playing matches, the English international was out for the majority of the 2019/20 season, so tired that she was sleeping for large parts of the day.
She had gone from picking up the PFA Player of the Year award just one season earlier to doctors telling her there was the realistic possibility she might not play football again if she didn’t recover properly from the condition.
Not playing, with the added prospect of never playing again, added to the emotional tiredness that Kirby felt during her illness. She was mentally drained and struggling to engage in conversation with teammates and friends.
Retirement was on the cards for the now 27-year-old. Before starting to feel better and symptom-free, she revealed she had been thinking of calling time on both her club and international career.
Before the diagnosis, she had struggled with an injury at the very start of the season. She only made four appearances in Chelsea’s title-winning campaign which was cut short and decided on a points-per-game basis.
Between them both, Kerr and Kirby found the back of the net just once in the WSL last season.
Now, they have a combined total 37 goals and 18 assists.
The turnaround has been staggering and it has been a joy to watch two top players find their form again, regardless of club allegiances.
Beth England had been Chelsea’s standout player last year, winning the Player of the Year award.The return of Kerr and Kirby has pushed her to Emma Hayes’ bench.
That isn’t to say England has not played her part this season – Chelsea would not have won the league and progressed to the latter stages of the Champions League if it weren’t for squad depth and rotation. But it really does emphasise just how good Kerr and Kirby have been.
The Blues’ 5-0 victory over Reading, which secured their second WSL title in a row, was a 90-minute representation of the duo’s whole season.
As Chelsea chased their second goal of the afternoon, Kirby and Kerr’s telepathic understanding came into force. The English player gifted Kerr with a through ball, allowing her to break into the Reading box. Despite having the Golden Boot at stake, Kerr selflessly squared the ball to Kirby who smashed it into the top-right corner of the net.
Kirby also scored the third. Again, it was a little lay off from the Australian which gave her a clear shot on goal.
And finally, Kerr got her goal to retain her position at the top of the scoring table. Kirby effortlessly chipped the ball over the Reading defence and Kerr made the right run at the right time to slot it past the keeper.
The combination play was superb and reminiscent of this year’s Continental Cup Final where ‘Kerrby’ ran riot in a 6-0 thrashing over Bristol City. A hat-trick for Kerr and a brace for Kirby, along with four assists. No big deal.
The two players know each other’s playing style inside out. Kirby always knows which clever run off the opposition’s defence Kerr is going to make, and she plays the pass to match.
The pair seem to have the super ability to predict the future or read each other's minds. Kerr knows what Kirby knows and Kirby knows what Kerr knows.
It’s a chemistry which has undoubtedly helped Emma Hayes and Chelsea to the pinnacles of footballing success.
Both had been written off.
There were doubts that Kerr would never re-find the goal-scoring form she once had shown in Australia and the US. Had she been overrated and was the WSL too much of a challenge?
For Kirby, there were concerns she would not return to football at all, let alone flourish at the heights of the 2018/19 season when she deservedly was voted as the league’s best player.
Perhaps the ‘Kerrby’ duo’s comeback narrative makes this story all the more sweeter. They have already won the double with Chelsea. By Sunday they might have secured the triple. A quadruple through the FA Cup is also on the cards.
Kerr and Kirby have gone above and beyond what was expected from them both and they have combined to form one of the greatest partnerships the game has ever seen.
Their seemingly telepathic connection has stunned opposition, saved their teammates and entertained spectators with scintillating link-up play.
For fans of football, long may it continue.